As I watched the coverage of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation on TV and followed the personal stories from my friends on Facebook, my first thoughts were simply for the care and safety of those in Sandy’s path. When the coverage switched to recovery efforts, my attention switched to the decision of whether or not to hold the New York City Marathon. I have always seen endurance races as hopeful and inspirational events. Initially, I thought holding the race could be a positive way to distract people from the struggle to get their lives back to normal. However, as I watched the pain and anger in the faces of those still in the throes of trying simply to live; to get food and water, electricity, heat, gas, I realized the wounds were simply too fresh and raw. These folks were at the starting line of their own personal marathon to normalcy. Throwing a 26.2 mile city-wide party would simply add more salt to the wound. I understand that the economic impact to the city for cancelling was not insignificant and I doubt anyone argues that NY needs all the economic help it can get right now. And, as much as Mayor Bloomberg and race officials said the race would not divert resources from the recovery effort, I can also understand how anyone else might say ANY police, fire, or other workers that were working the race are resources that could be helping those in need. I don’t really know if their reassurances about resources were true or not, but the reactions of the people of NY were emotional responses, not rational ones and they were starting to turn that emotion against the running community in general. I am such a lover of this sport, and I hated to see runners cast in the role of villain, so I was honestly relieved when the race was cancelled.
Of course, I wasn’t registered to run this race, so it’s easy for me to be relieved from the comfort of my armchair. I didn’t spend months and months training, I hadn’t asked my friends and family to donate funds to a charitable cause on my behalf, I wasn’t running in honor or in memory of someone close to my heart, or in celebration of any personal triumph over adversity. But I have done all those things for other races and I can easily imagine the aching hearts of those who did them in anticipation of this event. After one of the worst hurricanes this nation has seen, missing this one race pales so much in comparison that these disappointed runners didn’t even have a right to complain. They must put on their brave faces, openly share only their concern for the hurricane victims, and try to tell themselves and the world that it’s only a foot race.
Having been to the running rodeo a few times now, I have come to learn that disappointment and running are often partners in endurance running. Injuries plague even the fittest runners. For slow-pokes like myself there is the ever-present threat of being taken off the course for missing time limits. They don’t call it “hitting the wall” for nothing and some runners aren’t able to finish their race in the face of overwhelming physical and/or emotional obstacles. Even if you cross the finish line, it’s often in a disappointing time – maybe just short of a Boston qualifier for the faster runners, or your body is so wrecked you can barely remember getting there. It’s also not unusual for runners to find depression waiting for them on the other side of 26.2 miles once the high from crossing the finish line wears off. Given the never-ending opportunities for disappointment and disillusionment, it’s sometimes a wonder that anyone does these events at all.
In the middle of writing this, I took a break to meet a friend for lunch. We were chatting about the NYC marathon decision and I remembered that she had recently run a local half-marathon. I asked her how it went and she excitedly recounted the highlights of the race – where she saw her son and her husband on the race course, how Mission Impossible played in her headphones as she powered her way up one of the tough hills, and how for the first time she actually sprinted the last few hundred feet to the finish line. She said it was one of the best races she had ever run, and she even beat her time just a few months prior by almost 20 minutes. I could almost see that runner’s high in her eyes as she described the run. For even a chance at one of those magical moments, that is why we bear the pain and suffering that is training for an endurance event. And, honestly, if the training were not fraught with peril and frustration, the rewards would not be nearly so rewarding. Every lost opportunity and failed effort steels a runner’s resolve and makes the victory later just that much sweeter.
To the NYC marathoners who are staring straight into the face of disappointment and let-down right now, take heart. This too is part of your journey and the true athlete knows there will be more chances, more races, and victories yet to be had.
Here we go again with yet another article talking about how all us average marathoners are ruining the sport for the ‘real’ runners. I was intrigued by this NPR article written by Asma Khalid, Marathons, Once Special, Are Now Crowded because it features an athlete, Rachel Couchenour, training for her first marathon with Team in Training:
After a sorority sister was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Couchenour decided to join the charity running group Team in Training. The organization raises money for leukemia and lymphoma research.
The article goes on to describe how Team in Training has had a hand in the growth of marathons:
“These training programs are the pipeline for this growth,” says Ryan Lamppa of the research group Running USA.
“They can take that new runner from unfit to finish a marathon in 3 to 6 months,” he says. “They opened up the sport to mainstream America.”
So far, so good. Team in Training is a great organization that takes people from zero to 26.2 miles and at the same time raises money to fight blood cancer. The article also talks about how more and more people are qualifying for the Boston Marathon as a result of these efforts, but it loses me when it gets to this comment about the dilution of the sport:
And while the folks who host the Boston Marathon are also happy that more people are running, they worry that as mainstream American joins the race, amateurs will dilute Boston’s prestige — especially if the fastest runners are locked out because they miss the sign-up.
The Boston Marathon requires athletes to run qualifying times which are no small feat to accomplish. If I wanted to qualify, I would have to run a qualifying event in 3 hours and 50 minutes. Given that it took me just over 7 hours to finish the last marathon I ran, I don’t think anyone in Boston has to worry about me ruining their race.
As I understand it, the article is saying that too many people are qualifying for this prestige event. In other words, groups like Team in Training are training their runners too well? They make them such fast runners that they are taking up all the slots at the Boston Marathon? If you actually qualify for the event, how does that make you unworthy to share the route with other “real” runners?
I understand that the Boston Marathon is a prestige event and I am in awe of the very few people I know who have qualified. And I am more than okay with events that have entry requirements. There are plenty of fun events for the athletes at my end of the spectrum. And to be sure the organizers of this event have a capacity problem on their hands and I don’t pretend to have all the answers to that, but can we at least agree that if you can meet the requirements to participate, that you should have just as much opportunity to be there as anyone else. If that is not acceptable, then change the requirements, but don’t blame the people who did what you asked.
Seven glorious and grueling hours, plus 5 minutes, and 12 seconds. Yes, I finished and yes it was a long, LONG day. But I’m getting ahead of myself… I’ll warn you now this is a LONG ‘update,’ but 26.2 miles is a long way to go and there’s lots to share, so I hope you will bear with me).
I have always thought of running as a solo event. Especially training for endurance runs where you spend such long stretches of time out on the running trail with just the sound of your feet hitting the pavement and lost in your own thoughts. On July 26, 2010 after 26.2 miles, I came to learn that running a marathon is most definitely a community event; at least it was for me.
One of my trainers, Nadine, asked me after the race if I felt a sense of pride when I crossed the finish line. I can honestly say that as I stepped across that line what I felt most was profound humility and an awesome sense of gratitude – that my body carried me all those miles and hours, and for the tremendous help and support that got me there.
First, to all of you who supported me both financially and emotionally along the way, I could not have done this without you. Thanks to all of you – I raised $3600 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society! And thanks to all of you – I had an army of people encouraging me and believing in me, even on those days when I wasn’t so sure. And to my coaches, mentors, and new friends with Team in Training, who guided my every step of the 5 month training journey, I cannot even begin to imagine taking this on without each and every one of you (Tuesday nights and Saturday mornings still find me thinking of all of you).
I was beyond moved by the numerous ways that many of you expressed your love and support and there are a few stories I simply have to share:
• I have to start at the beginning and therefore the first “shout out” goes to my near and dear friend Holly. When I told her I was registering for my first marathon – without missing a beat, she said, “Great, I’ll do it too!” And she did, and she made it a point to be my very first donor. Although she trained on her own, we shared the tales of woe as we ran longer and compared aches and pains. And in an a huge act of generosity and friendship, when my injured hip flexor made it painful to drive my manual transmission, she traded cars with me and let me drive her automatic for two weeks so I could heal in time for the race.
• My friend Tara made a gesture that was almost more meaningful than I can put into words. She had been cheering me along through the training and I was encouraged knowing she had completed more than one marathon herself. As I was getting to the longest part of training, struggling with my own doubts about my abilities, a small envelope appeared unexpectedly in the mail one day. As I began to open it and could start to see that it contained some sort of jewelry, recognition washed over me and I literally took a gasp and tears welled up in my eyes. She had sent back to me a charm bracelet of girl running that I had sent to her years ago when she did her first marathon. That bracelet was an anchor to me and I wore it every single day in the weeks leading up to the race – and I look forward to returning it to its rightful owner in person someday soon.
• I called my friend Lee in the days before the event and confided in her my doubts and fears about my potential injury and whether it would prevent me from finishing the race. The Dr. had given me 3 potential options of what it *might* be, with each option less pleasant than the last, so Lee and I simply referred to it as “multiple choice injury.” I didn’t want someone to tell me everything was fine, when potentially it wasn’t, and she gave just the right balance of understanding without letting me get sucked in by my anxiety. She sent me the following in an email the next day: “You might be able to finish the race and you might not. If you don’t finish, it isn’t for lack of effort or lack of psychology or lack of passion for what you are doing, but is a sheer event of bad luck and bad timing. But I am 200% CONFIDENT that you will push your body to its ABSOLUTE LIMITS in pursuit of this goal. While you are running, we’ll be pulling weeds at an organized weedpull on Saturday. For every noxious, aggressive, invasive plant that I ruthlessly murder, I will ask that God send its strength and toughness to you.” And her comments about pulling weeds sustained me throughout the race in a way I did not expect.
• By sheer luck (or providence), I bumped into my friend Casey at the start line on race day. I had forgotten she was doing the event and was pleasantly surprised to see here there in the crowd of 25,000 people! We wound up crossing the start line at the same time and she let her two other friends run ahead and said she would run with me for a bit. We wound up running together for the first 10 miles until her half marathon run split off from my full marathon course. I’m not sure if she realized what a huge boost it was to have her company and those early miles literally flew by. After we split apart I reflected on what a shot of support it was to have her send me off to the rest of the race (and, again by fortune, we met one of my coaches, Siri, at the split and she took a picture of us before we each went on our way).
• My friend Cynthia surely deserves a medal of some sort. She casually offered to me a couple of weeks before the race that she would be willing to meet me in the back half of the race and finish with me. We agreed she would jump into the race at Mile 16, which happened to be just a few blocks from my house, and run the final 10 miles with me. I was appreciative of the offer and was glad to know I would have company, but little did I know the huge impact her presence would have on me during the race. As I said to her at least 100 times over those ten miles, “I am so glad you’re here and I don’t know how I could do this without you.”
• And finally, but most importantly, my husband Brian. When I told him I wanted to do this, he shrugged and said, “Oh, yeah, cool, I was wondering when you were going to get around to doing a marathon.” He believed in my ability to do a marathon before I had even signed up for the race. He was sans wife every Saturday morning, and when I did get home I was usually tired, cranky, and sore. Five months is a long time to put up with someone in that condition on a guaranteed weekly basis. He would bring me water or ibuprofen or a soda or my dinner if I was too tired to get off the soda. He enthusiastically (okay, maybe a bit too enthusiastically) dumped ice on me in the bath tub and coined the forever memorable phrase, “Lyda on the rocks.” He also fretted and worried when my hip injury got to the point I couldn’t drive the car. When he saw me at Mile 16, he practically danced out onto the course to give me a hug. When I saw him as I approached Mile 26, all I could see was the huge smile on his face.
So, now for the race itself…
We got up at 3:45 AM and loaded onto busses that took us to the start line, arriving at approximately 4:30 AM. The very first wave of the race started at 7 AM (and I was in wave 28), so we had some time to kill. After all the anxiety in the days leading up to this day, I was strangely calm that morning. (Or maybe I was just too sleep-deprived to notice!) I made my way to my starting corral around 7:15 and bumped into Casey. We crossed the start line together at approximately 7:45 AM. I felt good and although running at a pretty slow pace was jogging comfortably and had no hip pain. I saw my coaches Nadine and Jeff and Siri along the way and they shouted out their encouragement. Casey and I talked about everything and nothing and I feel as though I blinked and we hit the split where she turned left to finish the half marathon and I turned right to continue on the full course as it ran out onto the floating bridge deck.
It was about this time that I began to be cognizant of the time limit I had to make it to Mile 14. Our coaches had advised us that we were required to make the 14 mile mark by 11:00AM or we would be diverted to the half course and would only complete a 15 mile race. As I was running back across the bridge and towards Mile 14, I could see how few people were behind me. I did see some of my Team in Training mates and just as I was leaving the bridge, one of them was just getting onto the bridge and told me as we passed each other that they almost didn’t let her continue. My anxiety increased, but I knew I needed to keep my pace steady or I wouldn’t have anything left for the back half of the race. I made it to Mile 14 and breathed a sigh of relief to pass the mile marker on my way to Mile 15.
The Seattle Rock and Roll Marathon happens to be filled with numerous “out and back” sections where you see those in front of you or behind you. I entered another of these places as I ran up the Alaskan way viaduct and faster runners were running “down” the other direction. All of the sudden I heard my name and for a moment I couldn’t see where it was coming from. Then I saw Holly on the other side of the viaduct and we were in a place where we could run to the middle and were able to give each other a high five. I had not seen her at the start line so seeing her there at Mile 15 was a huge shot in the arm. Not long after that, some random sweaty fellow without a shirt on leaned over the railing between the two directions and shouted out loud as day, “YOU ARE A ROCK STAR” and man, in that moment, did I feel like one!
I should point out that at this point I was even more aware of how “behind the pack” I was – there was a random person here or there around me, but I pretty much had the road to myself. During the “alone” miles, I kept thinking about Lee pulling those weeds and sending a little prayer of strength my way. I ran into a short tunnel and all I could think in that dark space was “I sure hope Lee is still out there pulling those weeds.” (I learned later that she was most definitely still pulling weeds and sending me prayers and although I don’t often prescribe to such things, I am telling you I could feel it.) I was on my way to Mile 16 to meet Cynthia and it was the thought of seeing her that kept my feet moving. I passed a police officer who looked me square in the eye and said, “YOU are doing JUST FINE” again, in that moment I was fine. Cynthia and Brian were there at Mile 16 and jumped onto the course as we headed up a mile long hill. Brian hugged me and dashed off at the next block to drive down and meet us at the finish line.
Cynthia was full of energy and spirit and thought everything about the race was in Cynthia-fashion, “fabulous” (Yes, to those of you who know Cynthia, she uttered her famous phrase more than once). I was getting a little tired by this point and having my own personal cheerleader was a very good thing. We walked up the hill and turned around a mile later and started to jog back down and back towards the viaduct. At Mile 19, we could see the final runner across from us at Mile 18. He was slowly and painfully slogging along and was followed by a motorcycle cop, a couple medics on a golf cart, a van to sweep people off the course, and a brigade of trucks to pick up the water tables. The woman next to me looked over at the sweeper van and said it looked like the Grim Reaper. Finishing this race was not a guarantee and I could see the threat of being swept a mere mile away, but hell if I was going to let that sweeper van catch up to me!
At Mile 20, Cynthia looked at me and said, “Lyda, you know what we should do? We should run the New York City Marathon!” I replied with a very curt “No” and then told her I wasn’t really that excited about *this* marathon anymore, so I didn’t really want to talk about doing another one. I was pretty cranky at the time, but I think back on her comment and it brings such a smile to my face now! As we were up on top of the viaduct, we saw another Team in Training Coach, Shelby around Mile 24. He gave me a big hug and told me I just had another short “out and back” and then I was home free. As we made the final turn-around, we saw the “grim reaper” flotilla again and saw a truck picking up porta-potties. I literally felt like they were erasing the course behind me as I walked or jogged along. We saw Shelby again and then Siri and Nadine. It’s worth pointing out that some Team in Training members only see one or none of the coaches and here I had a “trifecta” with three of them all together! I saw a fellow Team-mate who had been behind me suddenly in front of me, when I looked surprised, she told me that she had been turned around at Mile 24, cutting her race down to 25 miles instead of 26.2. Once again, I barely missed having the race cut short. When I hit Mile 26, our fourth coach, Jeff came around the corner and I threw my arms in the air and he gave me a hug as well. I could not believe I got to see all four coaches and it was a highlight for me.
Cynthia and I turned down the ramp towards the stadium and she dropped off the course when we found Brian. I ran into the final chute and was running all the way to the finish line. When I got there, John Bingham, who is a writer for running magazines was at the finish line. He is also a big supporter of Team in Training and had been the keynote speaker at the pasta dinner the night before. I have been a big fan of his as he writes for those of us who are in the slower running camp. He had encouraged us all to slow down a little to enjoy the journey and “get our money’s worth” from the marathon. He reached out his hand to mine and said, “Let me shake your hand and congratulate you.” As my feet crossed the finish line, and the finisher’s medal was hung around my neck, a wave of emotion poured over me. I felt so lucky to have made it every one of those 26.2 miles and I was overcome by the love and generosity of my friends and family who helped me to get there.
I have ended all of my “training updates” with the statistic that a marathon is approximately 41,280 steps. For me, I came away from this absolutely amazing journey feeling like the marathon, for me, was filled with 41,280 blessings.
Oh, and to answer the other question I get all the time – I don’t know. I simply cannot say if there are any more marathons in my future (Brian is hoping no and obviously Cynthia has her own ideas about New York…). I can say that I still love running and have set my immediate sights on a 10K in September. Beyond that I am honestly taking it one step at a time.
I will leave you with a John Bingham quote. It is probably the one he is most known for, but it is still my favorite, “The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.”